X-Men 2 Review
The first summer blockbuster of the year, X-Men 2 receives its world release on May 1st in an effort to strike the first blow against the Matrix Reloaded and The Hulk as the defining “event picture” of 2003.
The franchise has moved on and expanded from the highly introductory first film, which seemed to take so long presenting all the characters, conflicts and special characteristics that there was little time left for anything other than exposition and backstory. Here in the second instalment new mutants are sprinkled into the mix, existing X-Men are seen to mature and grow (particularly the adolescent pupils of Dr X’s Academy) loyalties are shifted and the mood darkens considerably.
One of the most startling and complex new boys; Nightcrawler (Alan Cumming) opens the film with a stupefying infiltration of the White House that quickly establishes that in X-Men 2 distinguishing the good guys from the bad guys will be a complicated task. The issue of mutant discrimination is again at stake for Dr Xavier (Patrick Stewart) and his team, sheltering in the seclusion of their private school, unaware that a new government initiative led by the hard-line Colonel William Stryker (the superlative Brian Cox) will soon precipitate a confrontation, and despite all their intellectual posturing, lets face it the X-Men (especially Wolverine!) love to have a good tear up between classes. To counter Strykers’ ambition to hunt down and imprison all mutants Xavier and his old ally/adversary Magneto must join forces, but with widely differing views on the place of mutants in society the alliance is quickly established as an uneasy, and ultimately temporary one.
X-Men 2 is not all that it could have been. Unfortunately many of the mistakes of the first film, admittedly to a lesser degree, have been replicated in the second. This compounded with slow pacing, and a deflated sag of expectation in a number of the key scenes ensures that X-Men 2 sadly misses many of its targets. The problem with the comic book adaptation often seems to be the dual bind of choosing an effective storyline from the multitude of material available and balancing out the action with heavy exposition. The X-Men legacy embodies this double-edged sword perfectly: So many great characters and exciting material to flesh out that it is hard to know how to cram it into 2 hours. This can easy lead to scenes that sag; bogged down in uninspiring revelatory dialogue that adds little to the overall experience.
After being somewhat disappointed with the extent of exposition in the first film, I thought that in X-Men 2, with the foundations of character development and interactions already laid, Singer could amaze his audience with an explosive ride from the first reel. After an excellent opening set-piece I felt confident, however the pace soon lets up. Singer has attempted to be true to his characters, and his intentions are well founded. Themes of change (presented as a counter-point to genetic mutation through burgeoning adolescence in the character of Rogue) belonging (in Wolverines’ search for a lost past) and evolution (Jean Grey’s unsettled visions) are brought to the fore in subtle character traits that mirror the central struggle for mutant equality. However this extent of story development must be substantiated in the action blockbuster with satisfying moments of conflict throughout the key scenes. Sequences that begin full of promise are either cut agonisingly short or choreographed clumsily and haphazardly.
Most central to this argument is the confrontation between Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) and Deathstrike (Kelly Hu) that forms the centrepiece of the over-extended and fragmented finale. Two sides of the same physical coin are pitted together in this potentially monumental encounter, but the scene lacks the sheer awe that is anticipated. Too often the camera cuts in to a close-up at exactly the wrong time, splintering the scene into a sequence of reaction shots, as opposed to letting the action play out before a relatively unobtrusive camera. Alternatively, Singer uses his camera intimately in a number of scenes that have explanatory significance. Close-in, low angle shots pry into cloak and dagger conversations, with notable skill. It is in these interior scenes that we witness Singer’s true, but often misdirected, strengths. Throughout the film, it becomes clear that Singer is placing emotion above action. The ingredients are all in the pot but the amounts are slightly wrong making the balance unpalatable and unfulfilling. Someone should have reminded Singer that he was making a blockbuster.
Conversely whilst some characters are explored in detail, many have little more than a token role. This is especially true of Cyclops (James Marsden) who spends large chunks of the film completely dormant, and Pyro (Aaron Stanford) whose apparent change of heart seems somewhat motiveless. The ensemble cast dynamic has itself mutated to prove that some X-Men are more equal than others. Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellen and Brian Cox charismatically represent a triumvirate of opposing ideologies, which elucidates the central tensions. Cox’s portrayal of the devious, mutant hater with a grudge William Stryker is particularly effective, and Stewart and McKellen are as dependable as ever, even though their rivalry is no longer the central focus.
Inevitably, the X-Men franchise will roll on into at least one more sequel, potential scenarios are seemingly inexhaustible and if the logistical marketing feat of releasing the film onto the majority of the worlds’ cinema screens in a single day is anything to go by, this one should do some business. Studios don’t pull out those sort of stops for anything other than bankable certainties. Yet, there still remains a frustrated and stifled feel of unfulfilled potential emanating from this film. The material is self-evidently perfect for the big screen but key elements are transposed clumsily or unrealised, and the result is slightly limp. Perhaps the ploy is to tantalise the audience into always wanting more by not really giving it everything in a single burst, preferring instead to spread the excitement evenly over a number of money-spinning, big screen episodes, ensuring a long and solvent shelf-life, effectively destroying the notion that a single film can be enjoyed in isolation. This would be a cynical pill to swallow, but one that maybe works. I for one am already anticipating X-Men 3, hoping that this time these highly-watchable characters and their pivotal disputes are giving room to expand dramatically, and that all the tensions precipitated so far are brought to a climax worthy of the comics.
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